Why a Podcast?

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What should I do with all of this useless information in my head?

Though I would be flattered to think anyone cared about the depths of trivia I think about, the bottom line is that even most nerds let their eyes gloss over if I start to talk about the adaptation of Shakespeare into Saturday morning cartoon shows. Could I write a book on animated television show writing? Yes. Should I? Maybe.

They say great wisdom is knowing when to use great power.

So what do you do? When I can't talk to people on the street about cartoon writing, and there isn't exactly an M.A. in animated dramaturgy... When I can't go from zero to animated TV show writer, what is one to do? Chris and I started a podcast.

Writers Get Animated is part-theory, part-improv. In it, we try to explore all of writing's little nuances in cartoon shows. Everything from the most emotional moments of Futurama, to the best-constructed fart jokes. Usually the fart jokes are more fun to talk about. The podcast is only a thinly-veiled attempt to meet people in Big Animation. In addition to academic breakdowns (aka English-majoring-the-crap-out-of-things), we also just have fun. 

It Writes Itself! is an improv game we developed to showcase our creative (and ridiculous) talents. Chris and I spin some metaphorical wheels (they're in an app), and then spend 7 minutes developing a pitch for a crossover concept between two properties and an added gimmicky cliche. For example: Popeye and Akira as teenagers. In this concept, Popeye fills the roll of the titular Akira. He has a jet ski instead of motorcycles and eats some bad spinach that turns him into the monster. Ultimately, it is Popeye's untamed tweenage rage that prevents him from controlling his temper.

There's also a healthy portion of commentary in there, though. We dish on diversity in animation, how cliffhangers work, and what 'tone' means in animated television writing. Hopefully many more meaningful topics. Though like with any podcast, we have more fun along the way than we should.

Here's a primer in Writers Get Animated:

If you like that, subscribe to us on iTunes. Leave us a nice review! Keep posted at @WGAnimated on Twitter. Like us on Facebook. Tumble around with us

...okay, the last one doesn't work as a call to action.

Lessons Learned from Self-producing a Reading

Heartbreak: New Plays by Mackenzie Worrall

If you want it done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself. That's why I'll usually produce my own readings for works in progress. I hit up the owner of Kafe Kerouac who very generously lends his coffee shop out to literary groups around the city. If you're in Columbus, I can't emphasize enough how much of a help Mike is to the local scene. (Plus, the Toni Morrison is to die for.)

I did a few things differently than the last time. So... maybe, just maybe, these lessons will stick for the next reading.

1. Marketing is Important

This is something I know. I tried some new things this time (Facebook! Telling people in person!), but my turn out wasn't as high as last time. In part, that was intentional. My audience last time was so huge that I don't think I got a lot of quality feedback. To fix it, I intentionally advertised less.

The result? I knew all but two people personally. More people stayed for the feedback, but it was almost entirely positive comments.

Yay, my ego.

However, I organize a reading to hear the negative things. So. Next time. Tell fewer people in person; advertise more around town in coffee shops. This awesome poster (partly seen in the featured image of this post) was handmade by the talented Maddie Gobbo and only Facebook got to see its glory. So far. It's too awesome to stop using. It'll see the light of day again.

2. Have Someone Else Run Your Talkback

The amazing and super, super smart Chris Leyva ran the talkback after the show. This is something I love to do, but I also know that I'm too close to my own work to do it right. This was the first time someone else took the reigns for me. Even if I could only give him credit for talking while I frantically wrote things down, that would be enough to be life changing.

However, Chris took the conversation in valuable and interesting directions. He pursued lines of thought I would've glanced over.

That night was also his first night seeing my plays. I gave him no preparation. (Thanks, Chris!)

Lesson learned? Always have someone else run your talkback. And if possible, make that person Chris Leyva.

3. Skype is an Acceptable Rehearsal tool

I've never used Skype outside of my marketing work. This time, I used it to rehearse two separate actors who couldn't attend my main rehearsal. The play was mostly monologues. With Skype, we did a face-to-face reading and I gave each actor separate notes. The reading was their first time doing it together.

You know what? It worked.

Now that I know Skype is fine, I may start looking for actors outside of Columbus. I can rehearse them ahead of time and they can come in for the reading. Wow. Modern technology, am I right?

Thanks

Finally, I can't thank the following people enough for their involvement. Adam Greenbaum Latek, Emily Bartelt, Alexander Sanchez, Scott Riser, K.C. Novak, Jordan Shear, and Amy Hall were my talented group of actors. Madeline Gobbo for the poster, Ethan Roberts of Cinema Parmesean for the recording, Mike and Kafe Kerouac for the space, and Chris Leyva for making it all worthwhile.

More info to come on what happens to these plays! The submissions process has begun. I'm also planning on producing them right here in Columbus. Don't worry. I won't let you miss the announcement when that happens.

Reading Emptiness

Reading Emptiness

"How much emptiness can you say you've read?"

That's from the illustrious Griffin.

To be fair, it was sort of a crack at one of my favorite authors (Anne Carson) and her penchant for using negative space in published works. It borders on art.

BUT, it feels like an apt description for how to read a play. Also, how to write them I guess. Play scripts should be about the emptiness. Each play is ambiguous. You don't know who will direct or act in your script, you don't know who will see your production, and you don't know what other works they've seen before this. A theatrical play should be intentionally ambiguous.

Or, as my writing instructor at Second City told us a director once said to him about writing stage directions: Fuck you, that's my job.

Beats/Pauses/Silences are permission for readers to imagine succinctly in a play script. In teaching, we talk about how to connect with different types of learners. Kinesthetic learners need time and permission to play – even briefly – in an hour-and-a-half class. The two minutes they have to play with the problem in front of them is time to refocus and refresh their brains. I think this is true of plays also. These moments of emptiness give you temporary permission to imagine what could be happening on stage. They engage your ability to tell the story and give you a chance to set expectations for what you think might happen next in the story – only to have the story satisfy or rebuke those expectations later.

Harold Pinter is, of course, the master of such things.

Every line is a realignment of expectations and frustrating rebuttal to whatever you might've been expecting from the last insatiable pause you sat through. It's a cocktease. And some Pinter plays I admittedly love (Celebration) and some I hate (Homecoming). So I'm not saying drop everything and read Pinter, but you should at least know who he is. He is the most recent playwright to win the Nobel Prize (correct me if I'm wrong please, internet).

Pinter aside, every play script is rhythmic exercise in emptiness. Anne Carson may write for visual emptiness and they may be why I enjoy her work, but I can say I've read quite a bit of emptiness even without counting her poetry.

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For further reading: John Cage (composer of 4'33") on silence:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcHnL7aS64Y

 

9 out of 10 Things You Write Are Crap

9 out of 10 Things You Write are Crap

In college playwriting, we only ever talked about the structure of a play and how to construct it. We approached it from the artistic point of view. What I've found myself longing for is an approach to writing from the business perspective. Second City, while also a very funny place, has been expanding and making money for more than 50 years. They know a few things about the business of writing.

9 Out of 10 Sketches Suck

Second City produces a lot of work. They have at least four shows running at a time. Each show has up to 30 sketches in it. That's 120 hilarious sketches. That means that about 1080 sketches were also written that really blew. Thinking of it that way, I feel a lot better about my own writing.

With that in mind, the focus of our class was on idea generation. We worked with various ways to come up with new ideas, individually and collaboratively.

The Del Close Set Up

Del Close was a Second City actor and director who put a lot of thought into how to come up with new ideas quickly. The idea of this exercise is to write the first three lines of a sketch and then move on. After you have a bunch of beginnings, you can choose a few things that are working.

Here’s the outline:

  • A: Who is Character B, and where are they?
  • B: Who is Character A, and what’s happening in the scene?
  • A: Raise the stakes and center it on the relationship between the two characters.

For example, here’s a bit that funny guy Mike and I put together.

  • Mr. President, we have a situation in the ball pit.
  • For the last time, you’re my Secretary of Balls, I need you to take care of this.
  • Fine, I’ll take care of it. But if you shaft me one more time, I quit.

From there, we both continued the scene and went in different directions. The Del Close set up inspired both of us with the first three lines, though.

Pitching in the Writer’s Room

Our class also worked on how to pitch a sketch idea to a group. This is great for sketch comedy companies and TV writing (SNL, 30 Rock). This was a pretty straight-forward way of thinking about a sketch.

Each pitch needs:

  • Set up - Who, where, what’s the relationship
  • Problem - What’s happening in the scene
  • Solution - What’s the end result

We briefly touched on structuring a whole show. For example, Saturday Night Live has most of the best sketches in the first half. These all have good solutions. Ending a sketch is the hardest part. So the sketches that are a little clunkier get relegated to the last half of the broadcast, when fewer people are watching.

Miscellaneous Concepts

Finally, a few random ideas for how to generate ideas for writing.

  • What’s Different? - Take something mundane and normal, then make it absurd. Example: a drive-through where you buy emotions.
  • Relationship Triangulation - Two characters against a third. The humor ensues when they take opposing sides. Example: parents vs. child.
  • What’s Before/Beyond? - Take an event we’re all culturally aware of and explore what happens immediately before or after it. Example: what happened to Lincoln on his way to the theater?
  • Clash of Context - Take two opposing ideas and merge them together. Example: we watched a sketch from Paradigm Lost (Second City) where office mergers change management style at work like a radio station changing its format (ie: country, electronica, hard rock).

Start Writing Now

…is a mantra I tell myself. It’s amazing that in five days of sketch comedy class, we covered something I was really craving in college playwriting and never got. Not to say that college classes didn’t teach me anything – they absolutely did. Studying under Wendy MacLeod was amazing. I’m just glad to have covered some idea generation concepts to bust through periods of procrastination.

With these exercises, I hopefully won’t feel a dry spell ever again.

A Full Week of Improv Training in 4 Quotes

A Full Week of Improv Training in 4 Quotes

I had the pleasure of putting my GCAC grant money toward classes at Second City. I'm not an actor. I sort of used to be, but I'm not any more. I was very worried about spending a week learning improv with people far funnier than I am. Luckily, I learned that I am a funny guy. The instructor was full of wisdom. So much so that this is at least a two-part article. One is about the actual 'practical' things I learned about the techniques of improv. This one is about the soul of it.

Here's a 15-hour class distilled down to 4 quotes from John Hildreth.

“You're an improv actor. Your job is to get out there and make a scene."

Use your sense of urgency and get out there. The audience doesn't want to watch you saunter up to the front of the stage, tag the other actors out, and then think for a moment while you decide what to do. Keep the momentum going.

You do this in a scene by committing to the first thing that comes to mind. Improv is spontaneous. Part of the fun for you and for the audience is figuring out how to make ridiculous things that come to mind work in the context of your scene.

"An improviser is not second to go, they are first to support."

Leading a scene is easy. You can say whatever you want to kick it off and it will be true. You don't have to react to anything. Being the other person on stage who has to take your words, agree to them, and add to the scene has the hard job.

When you're an improviser, you can't say whatever you want. Your line must organically add to the world that's already being created. It can be a weird world, but it has to fit together.

"Make it worse."

If the first character is at their father's funeral, be their birth dad. If someone sees a rat, you see ten rats and they're combining together to form some kind of rat king. Leap on any conflict to heighten the situation and really highlight what's going on in the scene.

"This isn't a class on how to be funny."

John told us this on the last day. When I signed up for the class, this was exactly what I'd hoped he'd say. While going to see improv is usually about the comedy, creating it can't be. If you're trying hard to be funny, then you're not following the three rules of improv.

Trying to come up with jokes makes you think ahead and prevents you from being spontaneous. Sometimes, comedy won't organically fit into a scene. And if someone heightens your scene, you might not be able to use the same joke.

Like many arts, you can be born naturally funny. You can also cultivate a good sense of humor, but that takes a lot more work than covering the basic structure of how to improv.

How I won an individual artist grant, or "Use Your Words"

How I Won an Individual Artist Grant

If you haven't heard of them before, do yourself a favor and look up the Greater Columbus Arts Council. They do individual artist grants for a variety of things. The city of Columbus funds their programming (thanks, Mayor Coleman!). And, as grant goddess Alison told me this week, individual artist grants are pretty rare. Like many things, I decided to go into this head first.

Also luckily, I happen to be a copywriter (evidence here). Which essentially means that I spend hours and hours researching the temperature of the water when I could've just dipped my toe into it. With GCAC, I asked them directly for help. Sean and Ruby sat down with me and explained their process and what grant writing involved. I learned a couple obvious things.

To win an artist grant, you need to:

  • Use spelling and grammar
  • Add numbers correctly
  • Be able to articulate what you do as an artist

All three of these could be boiled down "communicate your ideas convincingly and concisely".

Spelling and Grammar

You already know how to do this. No matter how tough you think it is, you can spell words and use commas correctly. I didn't learn everything about grammar in school, either. I don't think anyone does. I learned everything I know trying to communicate with others through writing. Or, even harder, trying to write words for others to read out loud and still communicate my ideas to an audience.

Aka, playwriting.

When you're writing, think to yourself if someone could read that out loud without ever having seen it before and if a third person would understand what you wrote. We have symbols for pauses and stops -- things that break up a sentence. They're called punctuation marks. Use them, abuse them, don't be afraid to reuse them.

Writing is about transcribing not just the words in your head, but the tone. If you need to break English to accomplish that, make sure it's worth it.

Adding Numbers

You are an artist asking business people for money. Numbers are their language, so make sure you speak it well.

Think of all the costs you might need for this project and make sure they reasonably add up. Take screenshots of prices for classes and tickets on the internet, attach them to support your grant application. Bear in mind that some numbers change (e.g., plane ticket pricing). Build that into your proposal if possible.

Articulate what you do as an artist

Here's the hard thing to accept: you don't have to articulate why you're unique. In fact. Granters may be interested in knowing what other artists you are influenced by. If you can give them a name they know, they're more likely to enthusiastically support creating another one of... That person.

My example was Tina Fey for my Second City grant application. Everyone knows Tina Fey. Why wouldn't you want more funny people in the world? Let's give this kid some money for classes in a different city that Tina Fey also took.

Boom. Money.

Think of this like a pitch for a movie. Ideally, you're doing something new and interesting. However, you need to say what else it's like so that the investors know how to sell it. People will like seeing my work if they also enjoy Edward Albee, Tina Fey, and Dan Savage.

No one wants to give you money if they haven't heard of you. They will pay more money for something that resembles Robert Wilson in his formative years, but with a little more Liberace thrown in.

I got money for my education and so can you!

GCAC is an amazing resource for any Columbus area artist. They have a monthly deadline for three different individual artist grants: Professional Development, Performing Artist Travel Expenses, and a Supply grant. You can read more about qualifications here.